Monday, February 16, 2004

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has asked supporters to stop suggesting that President Bush shirked his duty during the Vietnam War, but a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee says his group will not back off.

At Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Mr. Kerry dismissed the charge by DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe that Mr. Bush was AWOL — absent without leave — when he was required to report to the Alabama Air National Guard in 1972.

“I have suggested that some people who are my advocates who’ve gone on that line of attack, it’s not one that I plan to do, it’s not one I have [done],” the Massachusetts senator said. “I’ve asked them not to.”

Asked whether the DNC will heed Mr. Kerry’s call to drop accusations that Mr. Bush was AWOL, spokesman Tony Welch said, “the White House did more to advance this than anyone else” and that Mr. McAuliffe stands by his position.

The White House released 400 pages of documents Friday from Mr. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard that show he reported for duty in Alabama. Two men who served with Mr. Bush at the time also have vouched for him.

Mr. Kerry said Sunday that from now on he’d leave the questioning of Mr. Bush’s service record to reporters.

“The president has to speak for his own military record,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. McAuliffe leveled his AWOL charge against Mr. Bush on the Feb. 1 broadcast of ABC’s “This Week” when he said he looked forward to a debate between Mr. Kerry, “a war hero with a chest full of medals,” and Mr. Bush, “a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard.”

“George Bush never served in our military and our country,” Mr. McAuliffe said.

In September 1972, then-Lt. Bush, a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, requested and received a transfer to an Alabama base so he could work on the U.S. Senate campaign of a family friend.

Democrats maintained there was no record that Mr. Bush showed up for duty anywhere from May 1972 to January 1973, but the stack of documents released Friday showed he was credited for time served on several dates in that span.

Mr. Welch said Mr. McAuliffe only broached the subject of Mr. Bush’s military service “in response to an attack by [Republican National Committee Chairman] Ed Gillespie.”

Before Mr. McAuliffe made his remarks on “This Week,” host George Stephanopoulos showed a video clip in which Mr. Gillespie said Mr. Kerry’s “record of service in our military is honorable,” but added that his public record since running for office reflects a desire “to reduce funding for defense and intelligence.”

Other Democrats also have joined the criticism of Mr. Bush’s military record.

Hours before Sunday’s debate, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York used an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to hammer the president.

“To say that someone actually saw someone in the military and that’s supposed to close it?” Mr. Rangel said. “We’re challenging whether or not he’s properly served his country. I think these are legitimate issues.”

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